Palin staff pushed to have trooper fired

Governor says she's learned calls were made about Wooten's ouster

August 14, 2008 

Gov. Palin speaks at a press conference Aug. 13, 2008.

Gov. Sarah Palin on Wednesday revealed an audio recording that shows an aide pressuring the Public Safety Department to fire a state trooper embroiled in a custody battle with her sister.

Palin, who has previously said her administration didn't exert pressure to get rid of trooper Mike Wooten, also disclosed that members of her staff had made about two dozen contacts with public safety officials about the trooper.

"I do now have to tell Alaskans that such pressure could have been perceived to exist although I have only now become aware of it," Palin said.

But Palin said her decision to fire Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan last month had nothing to do with his refusal to dump trooper Mike Wooten.

The governor said evidence of what she called a "smoking gun" conversation, and other calls made by her aides, only recently surfaced as the attorney general started an inquiry at her request into the circumstances surrounding her firing of Monegan. Palin wanted the review because a special investigator hired by the Legislature is about to investigate the firing and a legislator has been quoted in a newspaper story talking about impeachment.

The majority of the calls came from Palin's chief of staff at the time, Mike Tibbles, according to information gathered by the state attorney general's office. Attorney General Talis Colberg and Palin's husband, Todd, also contacted Monegan about the trooper.

Palin said she'd only known about some of the contacts and never asked anyone on her staff to get in touch with state public safety officials about Wooten.

"Many of these inquiries were completely appropriate. However, the serial nature of the contacts could be perceived as some kind of pressure, presumably at my direction," she said.

Palin said the "most disturbing" was a phone call Frank Bailey, the governor's director of boards and commissions, made to trooper Lt. Rodney Dial in February. The Public Safety Department recorded the call, as it does routinely.

Palin, who said she'd only just learned of the call, released a recorded copy of it to the press on Wednesday. In it, Bailey clearly pressures the lieutenant.

'HORRIBLE RECRUITING TOOL'

Bailey told him during the conversation that Palin and her husband want to know why Wooten still has a job.

"Todd and Sarah are scratching their heads, 'Why on earth hasn't this, why is this guy still representing the department?' He's a horrible recruiting tool, you know," Bailey told the lieutenant.

Bailey made several accusations against Wooten in the call, including that he lied on his application. Dial asked Bailey how he knew about any issue with the application.

"I used to be a recruiter. I know a lot of times that information is extremely confidential," Dial told him.

Bailey replied he was reluctant to say but saw the application as part of Wooten's worker's compensation claim. Bailey, later in the call, then brought up Monegan again.

"I'm telling you honestly, you know, she really likes Walt a lot, but on this issue, she feels like it's, she doesn't know why there is absolutely no action for a year on this issue. It's very, very troubling to her and the family. I could definitely relay that," Bailey said.

Palin said Bailey wasn't speaking on her behalf and his comments were "just wrong."

Bailey said in a Wednesday interview that no one asked him to make the call and he doesn't know why he indicated in the call that he was speaking on behalf of the Palins. He said he was calling lieutenant Dial, who was the state troopers liaison to the Legislature and had volunteered on Palin's campaign, in order to try to get information about the troopers union and then brought up Wooten.

Bailey said he'd heard at a security briefing right after Palin was elected that Wooten had made a threat against Palin's family. He said he also had casual conversations with Todd Palin about the trooper. Bailey said Todd had expressed "general frustration with the situation" but never asked him to do anything about it.

"My fear was (Wooten) could fly off the handle and do something that was irreversible," Bailey said. "That concern, that fear, has always been in the back of my mind."

Palin said it's under discussion whether Bailey is going to keep his job in the administration.

COLBERG'S PHONE CALL

Attorney General Colberg also disclosed Wednesday that he'd made a call about Wooten. Colberg said he called Monegan several months ago after Todd Palin asked him about "the process" for when state troopers make death threats against the first family.

"I made an inquiry and was told by commissioner Monegan that there was a process in place and that it was handled and it was over. And I reported back to the first gentleman that there was nothing more that could be done," Colberg said.

Palin said her husband also contacted Monegan about a threat made by Wooten but backed off when Monegan indicated he couldn't get into the matter.

The family had alleged the threat in 2005, before Palin became governor. They said Wooten had told Palin's sister he would shoot their father if he got the sister a lawyer.

Wooten denied saying anything like that. But a trooper investigation concluded he did, although it wasn't a crime because he didn't threaten the father directly. Wooten's actions did violate trooper policy, the investigator found.

Palin said she was meeting with the investigator hired by the Legislature, Steve Branchflower, on Wednesday and would turn over everything gathered as part of the attorney general's inquiry. The Bailey phone call was the only one that Palin singled out as being wrong. Assistant Attorney General Mike Barnhill said all the calls from then-chief of staff Tibbles, who is now running Sen. Ted Stevens' re-election campaign, regarding Wooten looked to be appropriate.

"It's absolutely appropriate that a chief of staff was checking on staff issues and personnel, policy and procedure," Palin said.

Palin said no one from the Department of Public Safety -- including Monegan before his firing -- had complained they felt pressured regarding Wooten.

KOPP'S SEVERANCE PACKAGE

Colberg also disclosed Wednesday that Chuck Kopp, who Palin had appointed to replace Monegan as public safety commissioner, received a $10,000 state severance package after he resigned following just two weeks on the job.

It was in light of the fact that he left a comfortable 19-year career on the Kenai Peninsula and took a job that lasted less than two weeks," Colberg said.

Kopp, the former Kenai chief of police, resigned July 25 following disclosure of a 2005 sexual harassment complaint and letter of reprimand against him.

Monegan said in a Wednesday interview that he didn't get any severance package from the state.

WHY PALIN FIRED MONEGAN

Monegan was a Palin appointee, and she had a right to fire him for any reason. She's previously refused to say exactly why she got rid of him, but laid out several reasons Wednesday, saying she's decided to talk about it because Monegan is.

Palin said he wasn't doing enough to fill state trooper vacancies and battle alcohol abuse issues. She said he "did not turn out to be a team player on budgeting issues."

Palin said it's fine to have debates during cabinet meetings over the budget but Monegan went further and indicated to legislators she wasn't proposing enough spending. Palin's acting chief of staff, Mike Nizich, said Monegan asked legislators for spending that hadn't been authorized by the governor.

"The response he got was don't come to us and ask for more money when you cannot fill the 56 or 58 trooper positions that were vacant," Nizich said. "So he was making a pitch for additional funding when he couldn't even fill what he currently had available to him."

Monegan questioned that but declined to comment further, saying he's already started talking to the special investigator hired by the Legislature to look into his firing.


Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.

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